Hidden Homeless Students — Identifying Them Helps Everyone

Rudimentary math lesson gauges district performance in ID-ing students experiencing homelessness

The wonder of learning! Photo Diane Nilan

School personnel share common frustrations:

absenteeism, chronically tardiness, lethargic learners, disruptive behavior, disorganized/unprepared students, seemingly disinterested parents, unpaid fees and unreturned forms.

One underlying cause of the above — homelessness. Unfortunately, many schools struggle to identify students experiencing homelessness. So the above frustrations fester. Unnecessarily.

Having visited school districts across the country for the past 15 years in my work for HEAR US Inc., I’ve chronicled stories of families and youth experiencing homelessness. I’ve seen both exemplary and inadequate efforts to comply with the federal law, McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act (MV EHCY), that I helped update back in 2002.

My work as a shelter director put me in contact with plenty of families and youth trying to maintain their educational access and stability. Illinois passed the Illinois Education of Homeless Children Act in 1994, the basis of the MV EHCY 2002 reauthorization. I was intricately involved in those efforts, and have worked since then to implement this essential, but obscure, law.

Recently, news of Cherry Hill, New Jersey’s conundrum with unpaid lunches jumped out at me. Back in 2017, I spent time in NJ filming a short documentary, Worn Out Welcome Mat: Family Homelessness in New Jersey, for the MV division of the NJ Department of Education. The primary reason for this film was to increase awareness in school districts because they appeared to be significantly under-identifying homeless students.

Cherry Hill might be a good example of how this happens. One of the largest districts in the state, about 11,000 students, the area is fairly stable; some describe it as affluent. Poverty is less visible than other NJ enclaves. So few noticed that the Cherry Hill school district identified a mere handful of homeless students, 50 or so. But I noticed that the district’s free lunch count hovered around 1,500. Those are the very lowest income students.

One indicator of a district’s realistic homeless census, a number they are required to report each year, is if it at least reflects 10% of the free lunch count. This conservative gauge offers a mere reference point — impoverished students are most likely to end up homeless. If they do, the MV EHCY Act requires a measured response designed to help students succeed despite their homelessness.

Student Success Is Possible

When districts implement the MV legislation, wonderful things happen.

The problems of absenteeism, chronically tardiness, lethargic learners, disruptive behavior, disorganized/unprepared students, seemingly disinterested parents, unpaid fees and unreturned forms lessen, often dramatically. Students succeed in school. Parents feel aligned with efforts to educate their children. Communities see academic success foster productivity.

Intensity Photo Diane Nilan

By design, properly implementing the MV EHCY will lead to more realistic counts of students experiencing homelessness. Typically, when districts ramp up their efforts to identify and serve these students, the kids respond by learning, parents feel more engaged, educators can teach, and administrators can revel in higher test score results, among other things.

I guess this makes lunch shaming a “good” thing in the sense it points to likely underachieving McKinney-Vento liaisons. The other good news is plenty of materials and assistance are available to help these beleaguered liaisons succeed. We’ll all be better for their success!

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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